HR Leadership Column Expectations

The time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent over the past 20 years, according to new research. But what do we know about the effectiveness of all this additional time spent working together?

Thursday, June 29, 2017
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SHRM had its large, annual conference and exposition a few weeks ago in New Orleans, about the same time that Tropical Storm Cindy worked its way through the Gulf of Mexico. The logistics for holding a conference the size of SHRM's -- more than 15,000 attendees with another few thousand vendor reps -- are complicated enough without throwing in a flood-worthy storm.

But the show must go on, and while I was only following the conference on social media, I knew that SHRM's conference and meetings team had years of experience, expertise and contingency plans in place to weather the storm. And they did.

SHRM, like most employers, is dependent on teams of workers collaborating to get things done. But in many organizations, the team's effectiveness and the level of collaboration across an organization is something that simply evolves as part of the corporate culture. They're not the focus of the organization's leadership team, or included as an element in compensation design and delivery. Instead, employees are rewarded based on the individual contributions they make to the enterprise.

Last year, a Harvard Business Review article titled "Collaborative Overload" by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant, noted that collaboration -- the action of working with someone to produce or create something -- is on the rise. Because businesses are more global and cross-functions, "silos are breaking down, connectivity is increasing, and teamwork is seen as a key to organizational success." 

According to the authors, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more over the past 20 years.

But what do we know about the effectiveness of all this additional time spent collaborating? The authors note that their research shows that all collaboration is not equal.

In most cases, 20 percent to 35 percent of value-added collaborations come from only 3 percent to 5 percent of employees, according to the report. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation. As a recent study led by Ning Li of the University of Iowa shows, a single "extra miler" -- an employee who frequently contributes beyond the scope of his or her role -- can drive team performance more than all the other members combined.

The Institute for Corporate Productivity recently partnered with Rob Cross, one of the HBR article authors, to do some additional research on the subject of collaboration, with the goal of refining our understanding of how to leverage collaboration for greater business outcomes. Its first report, Purposeful Collaboration: The Essential Components for Collaborative Cultures, found that that high-performance organizations are up to 5.5 times more likely than lower-performing organizations to incentivize individual, team and leader effectiveness in collaboration. As Kevin Martin, chief research officer for i4cp, says, "finding ways to recognize and reward individuals, leaders and teams who engage in productive collaborative behaviors can pay off in a big way."

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But most compensation systems are focused on individual performance, not team contributions. In fact, the HBR authors' research uncovered an overlap of about 50 percent between the top collaborative contributors in an organization and those employees deemed to be the top performers. Further, roughly 20 percent of organizational "stars" didn't help; "they hit their numbers (and earn kudos for it) but don't amplify the success of their colleagues," the HBR article states. "Leaders are hoping for A (collaboration) while rewarding B (individual achievement). They must instead learn how to spot and reward people who do both."

The importance of finding people who are both collaborative and focused on individual achievement is also discussed in Patrick Lencioni book The Ideal Team Member, in which he posits that the best team members have three values: They're hungry, always wanting to do more, contribute more. They're smart. And they're humble, thinking less about themselves.

So besides focusing on compensation systems designed to recognize and reward collaboration, what should HR executives consider? According to i4cp's report, nearly eight in 10 high-performing organizations made it a practice to clearly define and reinforce the importance of collaboration in development programs. In other words, they set expectations for collaboration.

It seems to me that telling people what you expect them to do, and designing compensation systems that rewarding them when they do it, is something HR professionals can collaborate on with other leaders.

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